ANALYSIS: When could a Third Runway be operational?

Heathrow thinks it may achieve development consent for a new runway up to three years earlier than Slough Borough Council – such is the gap that divides its optimism from more conservative observers.  So what is the process for approval and who is forecasting what?


Although the third runway has been approved by Ministers there is still a very long way to go in the decision making process – and plenty of legal challenges are already under way.  Heathrow itself is forecasting a four year process to gaining approval and others much longer.

Rather than a planning application and subsequent appeal, approval will follow the route for Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects introduced in the Planning Act 2008, a Development Consent Order.

Since DCOs were introduced to speed up the planning process there has inevitably been criticism that they circumvent the opportunity to challenge.  Nevertheless, given the alternative is a Hybrid Bill through Parliament, that may be considered preferable: many local groups found petitioning Parliament in relation to HS2 a fruitless ordeal.

Heathrow's (official) schedule

Heathrow’s (official) schedule – internally it suggests it may gain consent by 2020

Under the DCO process there is no public inquiry, however a mechanism exists for stakeholders and the public to provide comments during the examination period. The Examination is mainly a written process, although in certain circumstances hearings may be held, at the discretion of the Planning Inspectorate.

The next key stage of the approval process will be the publication of a Draft National Policy Statement (NPS) for public consultation – expected to be early in 2017. The results of this will be considered by a Select Committee which will hold an Inquiry.

The final version of the NPS will then be approved by Parliament.  The Government says this will come in late 2017 or early 2018.

A planning application in the form of a Development Consent Order will then be prepared, considered through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project process under the 2008 Act.

Heathrow expects that DCO consent will be gained “around 2020/21”, allowing construction to commence.  The Government, on the other hand, set out a more conservative timetable when it gave the new runway its backing.  It believes 2021/22 is more likely.

Slough Borough Council thinks even that is overly optimistic.  In a recent report to Planning Committee members on the status of its draft Local Plan, it anticipates that “detailed consent for the new runway may not be granted until 2023”.

For residents and small business owners that date is key: Heathrow has said it will not open its compensation scheme until development consent is granted.

The Government's published schedule

The Government’s published schedule

Impact on the new Local Plan for Slough

Council officers noted that the long timescale for making a final decision about the third runway at Heathrow will make work on the new Local Plan for Slough very complicated and will effectively stall any major development in the parish:

“The Local Plan will have to safeguard the land that is needed for the airport and related facilities as well as any changes to the road network. It is envisaged that this will eventually be worked up into a Master Plan for the Colnbrook and Poyle area”.

It recognises that the Public Inquiry into the new Local Plan will inevitably be dominated by Heathrow,

“This will inevitably be controversial and lead to objections to the Local Plan. As a result there is a danger that the Local Plan Inquiry could be dominated by Heathrow related issues which could make it a very long and expensive process”.

When could a third runway open remains anyone’s guess.

In Heathrow’s 2013 submission to the Airports Commission it anticipated an opening in 2026 on the basis of approval by the end of 2019.  In its final submission in 2015 it brought this forward to June 2025, even with the twin challenges of the M25 and decommissioning Grundon’s Energy from Waste plant.  It appears to have pushed that back by at least twelve months on its tacit acceptance that development consent won’t come before 2020 now at the earliest – but it has made no official comment so far on the impact on when it might commence operations.

If Slough is right, the opening of a new runway could be anywhere between 2028 and 2030 – or beyond.  Many, of course, are predicting the pace will be much slower.

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